Whenever I sit down to write a new character, I end up pausing to double check my research. I think one of the most important aspects of literary casts is diversity, but it’s something you have to do right. It is dangerous to fall into the trap of describing unfamiliar characters through stereotypes. I believe, however, that it is equally as bad to ignore a character’s culture.
We live in a vastly complicated world, and it’s not pretty by any means. Racism, sexism, and countless other deplorable beliefs exist in our day-to-day lives. Some of us are lucky and do not encounter these problems very often. Others, not so much. This is something I became increasingly aware of as I learned to be more socially conscious with my writing.
When a character comes from a specific culture, they bring their baggage with them. You cannot take a white character and change their race without that shift affecting their lives. When you face different prejudices, you develop a different mindset, after all.
In the case of a devout Muslim character, for example, they are going to carry some of their religious background with them. That background is going to be vastly different from that of a devout Catholic. In that same regard, a Muslim character in Somalia is going to encounter different problems than one living in France. Location, history, and sociology are all things one has to consider when they try to introduce minority characters.
Ignoring a group’s social struggles and pressures paints an untrue picture of the world. It does not mean that a character can’t be an anomaly from their social group. In fact, that could be a huge part of their personality. This variance, however, is something the author should point out. I feel this is especially true when writing for young audiences.
And this is where things get tricky in terms of balancing a character. While a person should carry some marks of their culture, these imprints should not be counted on to create an entire character. Humans are far more complex than that.
In my book, for example, I have a girl from India who bears scars of abuse for being an unwanted daughter. Female abuse and infanticide is a serious problem in India. While it does not represent all of India, and there are many Indian families that love and cherish their daughters, it is a problem that still exists throughout the country. This character carries this maltreatment in the burns on her back.
Her scars, however, do not define her person in its entirety. She has managed to rise above the psychological trauma. She is fashionable, physically strong, a loyal friend, a feminist, a romantic, funny, and just a little bit strange. Her culture encouraged the growth of these traits through both good and bad experiences. She is the product of her society, but not the embodiment of it.
I want to see more honest depictions of different cultures in literature, especially where children are involved. And while I’m trying my best to get everything right, I know there are points where I am going to mess up. I’m not from the cultures I am trying to represent and so there is no way I could write them with perfect accuracy. I have struggled with this notion for some time. I worry that I am doing more harm than good, but whitewashing my books feels worse.
There has recently been a movement to see more diverse books, characters, and authors in our bookstore. While I cannot and should not be the forefront of this movement, I hope that I can help support it. The most I can ask is that if I get something wrong, then someone will let me know. Explain to me where I messed up. That way, I can acknowledge my mistake and take steps to never make the same error. I want to make things better, not worse.